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Episode 4 – Lenny Bruce

Lenny Bruce was a giant of 60s counterculture. His trailblazing comic style, which brought him unending legal trouble, is still having a profound impact on pop culture today. But he was a seriously damaged man, bedevilled by drug addiction and depression that fueled the often disgraceful antics of his personal life.

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    That is Lenny Bruce being introduced onto the Steve Allen show on April 5, 1959. He was at the beginning of his rise to stardom. The next 5 years would see him grow to become one of the biggest names of early 60s counterculture. In the decades since his death, a mythos has been built up around Bruce as a legendary free speech crusader, someone that fought censorship tooth and nail, a man whose railing against establishment mores paved the way for the truly free speech about drugs, sex, and religion that we enjoy today.

    But this modern version of Lenny Bruce is, ironically, a heavily sanitized one. It’s true that he was a free speech crusader, a pioneering comedian, and a civil rights activist. But he was also a con artist, a serial liar, a dreadful misogynist and one of the most severe drug addicts I’ve ever read about it.

    Leonard Alfred Schneider was born October 13th, in 1925. His parents, Myron and Sadie, were total opposites and not a good match. Myron was a hard working, conservative, unemotional man, who loved his son deeply. Sadie was narcissistic and impulsive. She barely saw Lenny for most of his childhood. She spent most of her time bouncing around the country working as a singer or dancer, going anywhere she could find attention or a quick buck.

    Lenny was a child of the depression, but he didn’t grow up poor. Myron sacrificed everything he could to make sure his son had a good start in life. They owned their own home, which Myron renovated himself, and he even found the money to send his son to a private school for a few semesters. But Lenny didn’t like his dad. He found him authoritarian and repressive, and later accused him of being violent. He rankled against his dour, rural, traditional jewish upbringing and longed for his missing mum.

    When Sally did show up, she didn’t act like a parent. She would treat Lenny more as though he were a friend or partner, taking him to adults only cabaret shows and forcing him to amuse himself in the dingy bars she was performing in. Sally got to be the fun parent, while Myron had to be the adult, and Lenny resented him for it.

    In 1942 and against his father’s wishes, he joined the navy. 17 year old Lenny was 5’2 and weighed tiny 120 pounds. He was a sheltered, spoiled kid that didn’t fit in very well in his unit. In a letter home to dad, he wrote:

    “Dear Father
    I would truly give all my worldly possessions to spend a few hours with you now. I know you’ll say I told you so, but I’m kicking my rear section for not continuing my education. How is Dorothy (his step mother)? You know, father, as young, chronologically speaking, as I am, I feel mentally superior to most of my associates. I don’t say this boastfully, but I attribute the fact to the rather strained but intelligent surroundings that I had….”

    He was stationed on the light cruiser Brooklyn as a gunnery team member. He spent three years at war cruising the western mediterranean. The Brooklyn served her country well, and Lenny’s unit even received a presidential citation.

    Apart from one incident where Lenny watched as a bunch of dead airman floated by the side of the ship and a short battle with some Vichy French cruisers, it doesn’t feel like he saw all that much carnage. The Brooklyn was lucky enough to see out the war relatively unscathed. Once the war was up, Lenny needed a way to get out.

    “I wasn’t as afraid of being killed in battle as I was of being bored.”

    He still had a few years to run on his term of service, and the only way out of it was an injury or a dishonorable discharge, which would mean being held in military prison for 6 months before getting kicked out with no pension. He had to come up with an answer.

    He decided to try and trick his superiors into thinking he was gay, which would get him a dishcharge. In Lenny’s version of events, this involved performing his evening guard duties wearing a dress for a few weeks in a row. In other versions, he kept grabbing other mens dicks in the shower.

    He was brought up before a military tribunal, where he stated that while he wasn’t gay, being on a ship with so many strapping young men for so long was tempting him, and he could suddenly wake up gay any day now. This was enough for the navy, who discharged him honorably in November of 1945.

    Post war, he decided he wanted to be in show business. He went out to LA for a while to live with his dad, and try his hand at Hollywood. That didn’t work out. Then he schlepped back to New York, and lived with his mum. They shared an apartment, would go out and get drunk together, and would regularly bring home other people at the same time. It was a creepily close relationship. A decade later, when Lenny had become famous, his mother had a short & fiery relationship with a skinny dark haired kid of about 20 that she tried to mould in Lenny’s image.

    He started working the standup clubs in New York, and fell in with the hipster crowd that ran them. He quickly became the very image of a full fledged 40s hipster, which was a very different thing to the vague, ill defined hipster culture of today. To quote Norman Mailer:

    The average hipster was “ a white kid with a middle-class background (who) attempt to put down their whiteness and adopt what they believe is the carefree, spontaneous, cool lifestyle of Negro hipsters: their manner of speaking and language, their use of milder narcotics, their appreciation of jazz and the blues, and their supposed concern with the good orgasm.”
    hey were white kids adopting the music and aesthetics of black musicians. Nothing new there. But being a hipster wasn’t simply a fashion choice for Lenny. He actually did love the music, and throughout his life, his closest friends were jazz musicians.

    During his early days as a stand up, Lenny wasn’t very good. His manager got him his first act in Connecticut, and he bombed horribly. In these early years, he was a poor comic that simply took his cues from more successful acts, rather than developing his own style. He did impressions and topical humour, but by all reports he was a poor mimic, a bad actor, and couldn’t even put on voices for bits very well. He enjoyed a brief flash of success after winning a radio talent show, and had a very brief engagement on a good salary at a nightclub for all of two weeks, but apart from that, he struggled.

    Luckily, he was still being supported by his veterans unemployment benefits. This gave him the financial space he needed to practice, and, quite literally, get his act together.

    In 1947, he changed his name from the very jewish Lenny Schneider, to the decidedly Goyish Lenny Bruce. This was a common practice for show biz people, changing their names to something WASPy sounding in order to get gigs.

    The most important thing to happen to Lenny during this period, more important than jazz, or drugs, or the army or even changing his name, was meeting Joe Ancis.

    Lenny met Joe at Hanson’s luncheonette in the late 1940s. It was a quaint little diner-come-supermarket where all the bottom end show business wannabes hung out. Joe wasn’t like many of the other guys in the scene. He was a little older, had no interest in a show business career, and was actually funny. People called him the funniest man in Brooklyn. Joe would waltz into Hanson’s and launch into a free form, stream of consciousness esque act with very little structure, working the room with an acidic, aggressive form of comedy, but at the same time he was able to achieve an odd sort of intimacy with the audience. His delivery was fast as hell, and would bounce from topic to topic, mixing in yiddish slang as he saw fit.

    I’ve got some examples of it here, but it sounds like nonsense when I read it out so i’m going spare us both the indignity. You’ll just have to trust me when I say this guy was hilarious.

    Joe and Lenny became close friends, and spent the next several years hanging out together, and it’s from Joe that Lenny borrowed a lot of the style that would later propel him to stardom. This fast, loose, shit talking style, known as ‘spritzing’ was to become his trademark. But that isn’t all that Lenny picked up from Joe. Lenny was raised a traditional Jew, but he was a rural kid without that sense of broad, inclusive community around him. He lacked that quintessential inner city Jewishness that defined the well worn stereotypes of a jewish comic. Joe, on the other hand, had that in spades.He had an overbearing, overprotective mother, a proficiency in Yiddish, he still lived at home despite being in his late 20s with a good job as a salesman, and had a self deprecating manner when he wasn’t on stage. Lenny borrowed not only Joe’s style, but also his identity. Later in life, when Lenny would talk about his origins, he would offer a story that sounded far more like Joe’s early life than his own.

    Still, mimicking Joe did not bring Lenny overnight success. The post war recession was in full tilt, and many of the clubs stop hiring entertainers or just shut down altogether. Lenny wallowed around in poverty for years. In 1951, despairing at his lack of success, Lenny joined the merchant marines. The week before he shipped out though, he met a stripper at a club he was working at named Honey Harlowe.

    Honey, born Harriet Lloyd, had a pretty rough life. Her dad walked out on the family at an early age, and her step dad was a criminal that beat her mother. She was in and out of prison throughout her teens, and nearly beat another girl to death while inside. She’d been working as a stripper since she got out. When she met Lenny, she was 24 and already had two failed marriages under her belt. She cheated on her then girlfriend with Lenny during a series of hookups, before he shipped out for Africa. His stint with the merchant was just the three months, and the moment it was done, he flew back from Spain to meet Honey in New York.

    They started out great. They were very much in love, and got married in June of 1951. Lenny went back to working clubs. Wiith Honey as inspiration and his head clear from a few months of sailing, he began to find his feet. He was almost earning enough to support himself. He made Honey give up the stripping, and the two of them would work regular nightclubs as a singer and comic double act. They weren’t making much, but Lenny was frugal, and put away a little money every month into a savings bonds. They were building a neat little nest egg for the future. Life, for this moment, was happy.

    Still, Lenny had a selfish, amoral side. The same side that got him kicked from the navy for low level sexual assault, saw him fallback into scams time and time again. The most egregious of these was his Brother Matthias Foundation scam that he ran while working down in Miami. He stole some priests outfits from a drycleaners, and then panhandled for donations to a leper colony. He made 8000$ in three weeks, but was arrested by Miami PD. The charges didn’t stick, because before Lenny had left New York, he had officially registered the Brother Matthias foundation as a charity, and so the whole operation was completely legal

    He sent about 2500$ to the leper colony and kept the rest for himself. When later asked how he could do such a thing, Lenny would say “when you give money to the church, 2/3rds of it goes to keeping the Bishop in luxury, and the other 1/3rd, if you’re lucky, goes to the needy. What’s the difference between what I did and what they do?”

    The good times ended when Lenny and Honey had a major car accident. They were up in Pittsburgh in the summer of 51’, when a car failed to give way and t-boned their new black chevy. Lenny was fine, but Honey was thrown from the car, and then run over by a truck. Her bladder was punctured and she’d broken her pelvis in 4 places. She was in hospital for 7 weeks, and took a full year to walk again.

    Once recovered, they moved out to L.A to try and put down some roots. Lenny was tired of the constant travelling, and LA was a big city that offered the chance to work regularly in the one spot. The trouble was, working in the crowded hollywood scene meant less money, and this put strain on their relationship. Both Lenny & Honey had to return to working strip clubs, she as a dancer and he as an MC, and never at the same venues. The couple loved each other, but both had terrible issues with jealousy and trust, and with the two of them working separately in highly sexually charged environments, things became very strained. It didn’t help that Honey badly wanted a baby, but Lenny didn’t. He forced her to get 6 abortions between 1950 and 1954.

    Strip clubs back then felt, for some odd reason, they needed some non pornographic entertainment on the side. A typical strip club would have an MC to work the crowd and at least a 3 piece jazz band. The pay was poor – Lenny would make only a few hundred a week.

    Now it may have been because they were hanging out in strip clubs, or because they were stressed out and jealous of each other, or it may have been the jazz guys they were hanging out wit, but LA was when both Honey and Lenny got hooked on drugs. They’d used Heroin before on occasion, but it didn’t really become a habit until they were working the LA strip club scene.

    Lenny described Heroin as “a Sunflower opening in my stomache! That sensation only lasts 30 seconds, but it’s so powerful that it feels like 3 minutes. Imagine having an orgasm for 3 minutes! Sometimes, if it’s dynamite shit, you vomit. Then you nod out and sleep for a quarter of an hour. When you wake, you feel cool and groovy. Afterwards, you can go for hours in a state of controlled euphoria, working, balling, digging, getting your jollies. Eventually, it’s true. You get numb to heroin. You don’t get the same flash, no matter how high you push the dose. You have to switch to Morpheine or Dilaudid, Morphiene is a drag. Instead of a glorious flash, you get a nasty kick Dilaudid is better, but it doesn’t hold half as long as horse.”


    Lenny was a very different man once he was high. Most people are, of course, but with Lenny it was extremely pronounced. It didn’t seem to matter what he was taking, even if it was something as mild as weed, he would quickly transform from a rather shy, quiet, thoughtful young guy to an embittered, cynical, mean hipster with a real fuck the world and everything in it attitude.

    One of Lenny best friends from this time was a jazz saxophonist named Joe Maini. They met at Strip City off Pico Boulevard in West LA in 1953. Lenny described Maini as ‘his junkie lover’. Maini wasn’t just a great jazzman, but he was also a dealer, and hooked the entire club up with Heroin. Lenny’s lifestyle became a non stop party, working the club every night until 2, staying awake til dawn high as a kite, and then driving home to sleep until 4 in the afternoon to repeat it all the next day. The old, frugal Lenny that carefully put away a little cash for savings bonds every month, disappeared, and whatever money he was making went straight up his arm.

    Lenny was a huge hypocrite with his wife, in that classic kind of Madonna-Whore complex way. He could use drugs, but she couldn’t debase herself with them. He was her perfect angel, whom he regularly forced into compromising situations sexually. And he would consistently deny that Honey was bisexual, even though she had been in several relationships with women and was quite open about the topic herself. Lenny wasn’t just full of shit in regards to his marriage, throughout his life, he would consistently deny he even had a habit, and when caught out, would claim he could quit whenever he wanted.

    To make matters even more complex, Honey was pregnant again, and Lenny had finally agreed to let her keep the baby.

    The coming baby did not fix the issues in their relationship. Still working apart most nights, their jealousy turned into a self fulfilling prophecy. If Honey was cheating on Lenny anyway (she wasn’t), Lenny figured he might as well just screw around, and so he did, almost every chance he got. Honey would then find out, get angry, and cheat in revenge. They were still passionate about each other, but that passion was quickly turning from love into resentment and bitterness.

    In November 1955, they welcomed their first and only child into the world. Kitty Bruce was born a healthy baby girl, thanks to Honey kicking the habit for the last 6 months of her pregnancy. Kitty’s arrival changed things….temporarily. Lenny became a doting dad, Honey took some time off work, and things were peaceful. Lenny talked himself into getting hired as head of entertainment at a new club, Duffy’s, and managed to hire his entire working family. Joe, Lenny, Honey and all their friends were working under the one roof, which again, made everything a bit more stable. For a while.

    Duffy’s owner, Rocky, thought Lenny was hilarious. On New Years Eve, 1955, just before midnight, Lenny came out on stage naked and did his own little strip show in place of one of the girls. Rocky laughed so hard, he had a heart attack and was laid up in the hospital for a few months.

    Part of the trouble with working as a comedian in a strip club is that no one gives a shit about you. The audience is here to see naked women. No one cares about the comic, or the band for that matter. The customers are mostly sad, lonely, single men there to get their rocks off. Lenny was parsley, a polite but completely unnecessary garnish. He could work his ass off on brilliant bits, or offer the same tired impressions and jokes night after night. It didn’t matter. No one was paying attention. His own irrelevancy and the fact that the club owner loved him, gave Lenny loads of leeway to experiment with his act.

    His pre planned bits became smuttier and more daring. He would launch into unplanned, free association spritzes, often ignoring the audience and working the band instead. The audience didn’t care anyway, and the band were the smartest guys in the room. Their approval was more important to him. He would take the mic into the dressing room and talk to the girls, harass members of the audience, and make live prank phone calls that he would play over the clubs PA system. Sometimes, his stuff sounds like it was really, genuinely funny. Other times, he could be shockingly mean. One evening, he found out a couple in the audience that had a babysitter at home, dialed their home number, and informed said babysitter that the couple had died in a car accident on the way home and that the police were on their way.

    Backstage, things were getting wild as hell. Honey glassed Joe Maini in the face one night, mistaking him for one of the other band members who’d called her a slut. The drug use was so severe that the musicians would often just collapse to the floor in the middle of their set. The biggest issue though, was that everyone was fucking one another. The ‘family’ as Lenny liked to call them, had regular meth fuelled orgies going on after the club closed.

    Joe Maini recalled “Lenny was a devil. Girls would never think for a moment that they would do anything to anyone, and he would have them on the floor fucking ten guys. He had a magic to him.”

    These parties were sort of precursor to the swinging sixties and the free love era, a philosophy and a cultural movement, that to me has always felt like a lame excuse for guys to indulge in their most sexually aggressive, misogynistic impulses. For example, one night a girl named Sandra kicked Joe Maini out of a threesome. She just wanted to be with the other girl, not him. Joe responded by beating the shit out of Sandra, then chasing her into a bathroom where she locked the door in his face. Once he kicked the door down, he found her cutting her wrists with a razor blade. Another evening, Honey, overcome with jealousy after seeing Lenny fucking another woman, proceeded to run about the apartment wildly stabbing at people with her stiletto heels. That incident more or less ended the orgies. It was the beginning of the end for Lenny and Honey as well.

    Lenny’s drug use had gotten so bad, that he was now beginning to see the first serious medical problems associated with his drug use. He contracted hepatitis in January 1956 and had to stay a month in hospital. When he got out, he went back to their apartment and found Honey and Joe in the midst of a 3 week drug bender. Kitty had been badly neglected. They fought for days on end, but Honey had no interest in getting clean. In petty revenge, Lenny handed out his home address one night at the club and told the entire audience to come back for a party. 200 people showed up at 2:30 in the morning and Honey went ballistic.

    Two days later, Lenny filed for divorce and requested full custody of the 4 month old Kitty.

    3 months later, Lenny had a 6 week gig booked in Honolulu. He was there just two days before flying back to LA and begging Honey in person to come with him to Hawaii. He said he couldn’t be without her.

    Or so he claimed.

    They reconciled and flew back to Hawaii that night. They didn’t last two days before having another fight. Lenny accused her of wanting to fuck one of the members of the band in Honolulu, and to get back at Lenny, Honey fucked the piano player.

    Lenny’s response was not measured. It’s hard to say if he did what he did out of anger, or if it was some calculated move on his behalf to make the divorce easier. Either way it was easily the most awful thing he ever did. A couple days later, Honey found a bunch of joints hidden in their hotel room. Lenny advised she should just chuck them away, but she insisted on keeping them because one of the guys she was working with was after some weed. She drove out to meet her friend, and the second he got in her car, she was boxed in by a gang of cop cars that were waiting for her. She was arrested for narcotics possession.

    Now it could have been a coincidence that the police just happened to be waiting to pounce on her car at that exact moment, but the more likely explanation is that Lenny set her up.

    He put up the $2500 in bail money and moved into a different hotel. Honey was now stuck in Hawaii. By the terms of her bail, she couldn’t leave the island. Lenny finished up his run of club shows, then put in one last call to Honey before leaving for LA. He wanted to know if he could have Kitty for a few hours. Honey agreed, stating that Kitty needed to be back by 4pm. But 4pm came and went. Then 5. Then 6. Panicking, Honey called Lenny’s hotel, where she was informed that Mr.Bruce had checked out 3 hours ago.

    Lenny kidnapped the baby, and Honey wasn’t able to pursue him, trapped in Hawaii under the thumb of her bail conditions. That night, she attempted suicide.

    Sally, Lenny’s mother recalls:

    “He got bitter after Honey. As soon as Honey put him down, I saw a different man. He used to say, “You see here a lovely lady, too bad she’s so diseased.” That’s how he used to introduce strippers onto the stage. He just went a different way completely.”

    I would instead argue that the simmering misogyny that had always bubbled in Lenny, was now being expressed freely. His performances were now utterly vile to the strippers, calling them dykes, whores, ugly. He was an angry little boy starved for attention, jumping up and down shouting on stage at the mother that abandoned him as a child. Yet at the same time, he was progressing as a comic. He was now recording his bits, listening back to himself, refining his act. Writing jokes specifically for a handful of friends in the audience, rather than working the whole room. At the same time as being monstrous to the women, he was sharpening his act to a razor like edge.

    Honey, meanwhile, went into action. She got clean, stopped stripping, and started working as a seamstress for the girls at local clubs. The court in Honolulu convicted her and gave her three years probation, which meant she was now free to return to California and pursue her daughter. In early 1957, a custody hearing was held, and Joe Maini, whom Honey considered a close friend, testified that Honey was a terribly unfit mother and recurring drug addict. Shared custody was granted. 9 months to Lenny, and 3 to Honey.

    Once Honey got back to Hawaii, she had a disagreement with a career criminal that was in a relationship with one of her clients. To get back at Honey for their spat, the man, who was an ex-convict, informed Honey’s probation officer that they had numerous business dealings. That was a violation of her probation. She was arrested and given two years federal prison over a handful of joints. Lenny, of course, got full custody.

    Professionally, Lenny was getting what he wanted as well. He had gained a reputation in the underground scene. Comedy nerds, writers, jazz men and weirdo night people. He was a comic that could be relied on to riff new material most nights of the week. He told a friend “A comedian should get a laugh every 25 seconds for a period of not less than 45 minutes and accomplish this feat with consistency eighteen out of twenty shows”. He’d worked hard, and become a professional. He was live, he was risky, he was dangerous. He would mix jive with slang with yiddish, and take up risky material that other comics wouldn’t dare touch. He was now someone worth seeing.

    He got his big break in late 1957. He was offered a spot as a headliner at a new club on La Cienaga Boulevard. Opening night, it was a packed house, 300-400 people, with a lot of other big name comics in attendance. Lenny was thrilled. This was his big chance.

    But the Hollywood alumni in the audience paid him scant regard. He was just another no name comic with little to offer. This made him nervous, and he fell back on some old habits, playing to the band, rather than the audience. The audience got louder throughout his set, ignoring every joke. Out among the sea of faces, Lenny saw high society, America’s show business royalty, collectively snubbing their noses at him. He was not important. They were too good for the likes of this dirty little jew boy from New York. Incensed at the lack of attention, he roared at them.

    “Shut up for a moment! It’s important. An emergency! I just want to say one thing, then you can all go back to talking to one another!” The crowd quietend. “A kid looks up at his father, and he says, “Dad, what’s a degenerate?” The father replies “Shut up kid, and keep sucking!”

    A hush settled over the room. Lenny grinned. “And that’s what I say to all you people here. Goodbye!” With that, he turned around, mooned the audience, gave them the middle finger, told them to fuck their mums in Italian, and ran out of the club.

    Lenny was sure he had just committed career suicide, but that was fine by him. What would he want with an audience like that anyway? They weren’t his people. It was a room of hypocrites and phonies, stuffy pretentious rich folk that would gasp in shock in public and do far worse behind closed doors. He’d much prefer to be playing to jazz guys and strippers. They were at least honest about what they were.

    But his tantrum had the complete opposite effect. Rather than getting him blacklisted, the assembled crowd was instead asking “Who was THAT guy?”

    He soon picked up work at Anne’s 440 in San Francisco. He was paid $750 a week plus a percentage of sales, which was a massive pay increase from the 150$ or so he’d make at the strippers in LA. Anne’s 440, formerly Mona’s 440, was once an important lesbian bar in the bay area. Under new management, it was now a more general entertainment bar, but still had a strong GLBT clientele. Back then, San Francisco wasn’t an overpriced, soulless dump filled with techbros, it was a vibrant city of the arts. Beatnik poets, jazz musicians, experimental painters, interracial couples of GLBT people all mingled from the headlands down to Mission. Lenny felt right at home. He cleaned up his act a little, (after all, there were no strippers to scream at) and started playing to the crowd, doing bits on the hypocrisy of mainstream sexual mores that played right into the progressive crowds.

    Lenny also had something else that was important for a show biz career: sex appeal. He was a rake thin, stylish little guy with sharp features and dark pools for eyes, an impeccably snappy dresser. He was the kind of man who even sent his jeans away to be tailored. Lenny had a defined look, and it was in.

    Use Religions Inc. and Homosexuals

    I’ve used these two very different bits (from different time periods) so I can take a step out of Lenny Bruce’s life story and actually talk about his comedy a moment. The first recording is of one of his more famous bits called Religions Inc., the basic premise of which is that all Religions are run just like corporations, with metrics and turnover and capital and no regard for the average worshipper. This is the sort of thing that people are talking about when they bring up Bruce as a cultural pioneer. He was willing to attack the cultural sacred cows of mainstream America – in this case, big religion. Now, you may not find that bit very funny, but that’s largely because the western world has moved away from religion so much that the transgressive nature of the routine is lost on a modern audience.

    The United States in the 60s was a very religious country, far more so than it is today. 70% of Americans belonged to a church or synagogue in 1960. Today, that number barely scratches 50%, and a lot of those are newly arrived Muslim immigrants. The social power of the Church was extremely strong, and the religious right did not take kindly to Lenny targeting them.

    The second one I’ve included for two reasons; first, because I wanted to show what Bruce’s mumbly-jabbering delivery was like. Between the drugs and his habit of bouncing between topics, it could be hard to understand him. The second reason is that show you that a lot of Bruce’s catalogue veers into the homophobic and racist. I’m on the fence about it. Sometimes, I think what I’m listening to is just garden variety hipster racism and homophobia, where comedy is used as a pretence to get away with very real bigotry. Other times, I remember that Bruce was performing these acts in North Beach San Francisco in what was essentially a gay bar. If any audience were to take exception, it would have been there. And yet, he booked Anne’s 440 out for nearly a year straight. I get the feeling that even though Bruce’s act was crude, primitive, and problematic, the gay community appreciated that someone was willing to get up in public and talk about them. Here was a rising star in the comedy scene who was willing to take the risk in admitting, on stage, that they existed. That was no small risk either. It was one of the things that eventually destroyed him.

    Back to 1958. Lenny was a hit. San Francisco Chronicle Entertainment Reporter Herb Caen had the following to say in a review of him:

    “They call Lenny Bruce a sick comic – and sick he is. Sick of the pretentious phoniness of a gneeration that makes his vicious humour meaningful. He is a rebel, not not without a cause, for there are shirts that need unstuffing, egos that need deflating and precious few people to do the stick job with talent and style.”

    He released his first comedy album and it got some serious airplay. Suddenly, he found himself in the company of students, professors and poets. As much as Lenny aspired to this kind of intellectualism and the legitimacy they offered him as an artist, underneath that, he was still Lenny. Whenever he could, he would hang out with musicians, strippers, drug pushers, and stay in the dingiest, grimiest places available. The dirty comic loved to roll around in the muck. Speaking of muck, his next engagement was at The Cloister in Chicago, which was owned by Playboy pornographer and allround sexmonster Hugh Hefner. Hefner was quite the fan. He paid Lenny $2000 for a two week engagement.

    Honey, meanwhile, was still behind bars. Lenny’s mother Sally had brought Kitty to see her mother in prison several times. She had been scheduled to be released six months early due to excellent behaviour, until a couple of guys snuck into the women’s prison one night with a bottle of Tequila. Honey and they had a night of wild sex and drinking, which got her good behaviour cancelled along with a stint in solitary. Lenny then began to visit her, and once again they engaged in their on again off again romance. One visit he would be loving and affectionate, the next cold, cruel, and indifferent.

    His highly erratic behaviour was the result of the staggering amount of drugs he was doing. His habit had ramped up extensively since moving to San Francisco. He could now afford anything he wanted, and he had access to more than just street dealers – the entertainment industry was rife with corrupt doctors and pharmacists that were willing to prescribe legal opiods and meth variants. Lenny was now spending nearly $600 a week getting high.

    The next big step up came with a guest spot on the Steve Allen Show, which you heard in the introduction. This was a live, nationally syndicated program, and the only reason he was on at all was because Steve Allen, the host, insisted on it. The producers were terrified of Lenny Bruce going out live across the airwaves. The Steve Allen show was the 50s equivalent of The Late Show.


    For once, he was on his absolute best behaviour. Turns out Lenny DID want mainstream adulation, and was happy to temper his act in order to get it.

    He stayed in New York and did an incredibly successful run at a small club called the Den. He made damn near 3 grand a week for 3 months straight. He was happy. He was successful, respected, making a ton of money, and after a girlfriend of his nearly overdosed one night, he even managed to get sober. For a while.

    The major driver of his drug addiction was a fear of sitting still. When Lenny sat still in the one place, when he wasn’t distracted and animated, he would have to sit and reckon with himself. He had to think about his mother who had abandoned him for show business, and how he was kinda doing the same thing to his own kid. He had to consider that he’d betrayed the love of his life, how he was estranged from his father, and how he was getting older. That October, he’d turned 34. His whole identity was centered around being a cool, hip, young guy, someone that was not part of the establishment. What did life as a middle aged man look like for him? It was hard to tell. To quote Lenny, “Man, there’s nothing sadder than an old hipster.”

    The same girlfriend that Od’d noticed something else. Once he’d kicked the habit, Lenny became a calm, loving, sweet guy. He was intimate and gentle, funny without being mean, romantic without being dramatic. Lenny Bruce, the comedian, was a completely different creature to Leonard Schneider. But in order to work, in order to be happy, he had to be Lenny Bruce.

    Then Honey got back out of prison. Lenny broke up with the girlfriend and ran straight back to her. In his mind, Honey was going to raise Kitty back in LA while he worked the east coast, and everything would work itself out once he got home that Christmas. In reality, Honey was still an active addict, and their little dance started all over again. They broke up and reunited three or four more times in the second half of 1959. By the winter of that year, Lenny had decided to hand her off to psychiatrists. He was determined to get her clean, and he couldn’t do it alone.

    August 1959 was the night Lenny first got arrested. He was outside the club he was working at the time, the Crescendo, when a couple of cops stopped him to check for track marks. Even though he wasn’t using at the time, and had no narcotics on him, that was enough to haul him in. Lenny copped to a deal, and ratted on some of his dealers to get out of trouble. But it would be far, far from the last time he would deal with the law. In a sign of things to come, the LA police department threatened the owner of the Renaissance Club, where Lenny was scheduled to do a run of shows, that if the performances weren’t cancelled, they would shut the club down. The owner refused, and the next month he received notices from the Fire, Health, and Building departments that he was closed until costly renovations were carried out. He chose instead to transfer his clubs location, and was granted permission to do so – with a thinly veiled warning that sick comics were not welcome in LA.

    That winter, Lenny did a us tour. St.Louis, Chicago, New York, Detroit, and in the new year, he did a stint in Miami. With all that business under his belt, Lenny was flush with cash. He bought A huge double story house in the Hollywood Hills, with a 30 degree driveway, perched perilously on a steep cliff overlooking the valley. It cost him $65k for the house, and another $65k for all the renovations he wanted done.

    He spent the early part of 1960 with his family and writing. The civil rights movement was picking up steam, and Lenny wanted some jokes that spoke to the spirit of the age. That March, he hit the road again, starting out in New York with all new material. The strongest of his new stuff was “How to relax your coloured friends at parties”, a skit about a young black guy at a party talking to an old white guy who is trying very hard not to be racist – and failing terribly.


    Lenny’s usual audience – hipsters, liberals, and college kids. Loved his new stuff. But he received scathing reviews in big time publications like Billboard and the New York Times. Sick, vile, American’s no.1 Vomic, read the headlines. The second week in, the police turned up to his gig armed with a tape recorder. Lenny wasn’t playing to his hip young crowd at Anne’s 440 anymore. He had a big voice now, and the arbiters of American values weren’t liking what they were hearing.

    By the summer of 1960, Lenny had exhausted all options with Honey medically. He feared she would die if she kept this up much longer. In an act of desperation, he sent her away to Rome. He figured that if she was away from her suppliers, there was no way she could get high. Honey was suffering from withdrawal almost right after she landed, spent a week shivering on a hotel bed, and then began wandering the streets begging locals for a hook up. After three weeks, a friend sent her money to fly home, and she went to her mothers house in Detroit.

    Her addiction and subsequent withdrawal had hidden another major medical problem : She was pregnant. In a panic at the prospect of being an unwed mother to a drug addicted baby, she quickly arranged a back alley abortion without getting a proper check up. Once the procedure was completed, she learned that she had been nearly 6 months pregnant, and it may well have been a healthy baby boy. To top it all off, the procedure had been botched, and Honey was hemorrhaging internally. She lay in bed for a month with pneumonia and only barely lived.

    Lenny spent that summer semi clean. He had kicked the meth, dilaudids and heroin, and was bumming around down south playing with mescaline, lsd and peyote. He was taking time off work and was looking for a dreamier, calmer high. Something that could work the creative juices. That fall, he hit the road again, and that meant hitting the meth once more. He needed to be Lenny Bruce again, after all.

    He did a number of shows in Boston and Miami, before returning to New York that christmas. He had a concert at Carnegie Hall, the famed concert venue. The weather that weekend was awful. They received 17 inches of snow on the Friday. Roads were closed, businesses shut, and mayor warned people not to use the subways unless absolutely necessary. Lenny was about to pull out, but the promoter begged him to do the concert anyway, as he would be ruined if it didn’t go ahead. Begrudgingly, and blazed out of his mind, Lenny left the dingy little dive hotel he liked to stay at and wandered up Seventh avenue…..where he was greeted by a huge crowd out the front.

    He sold out the main room at Carnegie Hall in the middle of the worst blizzard to hit New York in a decade. And his performance? By all reports, it was the peak of his career.


    After Carnegie, he did shows in Boston & Philly before heading south for Miami. He got off the plane, and collapsed.

    He spent the next month in the hospital recovering from the stapph infection he’d gotten from his needles. He very nearly died. The family gathered around him, but Sally and Honey had a falling out after Honey left Kitty without a babysitter for a boozy fling. The tension caused Honey to start using more, and one evening she tried to choke Lenny to death in his hospital bed. She was restrained and sent to a psychiatric ward.

    Lenny took a few months off, and then went back to work like usual. His friends were becoming worried about his drug use. It wasn’t just the stapph infection. His behaviour was erratic, and he was more pointed, angrier. He was his on stage persona more and more often. Sid Mark, a philly dj, was driving Lenny and himself through the middle of Philly in a convertible. When they came to a major intersection, Lenny told Sid not to go when the light turned green. He wanted to cause a major traffic jam. When the light changed and Sid didn’t go, Lenny started ordering pedestrians around, pretending he was directing a film. The blocked cars started honking, people started yelling, but Lenny just kept up with the act, insisting that everyone take their marks so he could roll action. Then a cop car pulled up.

    “Just what do you think you’re doing?” asked the officer. “Oh don’t worry officer.” Lenny replied. “This is just a diversion for the synagogue we’re blowing up around the corner!” With that, Sid took off as fast as he could, over the bridge to Jersey where the cop couldn’t follow.

    Later that week, the police raided his hotel room, going so far as to kick in the door when Lenny refused to allow them entry. Lenny was arrested and his huge haul of drugs confiscated. Lenny was furious and called up an army of lawyers. One of them, Levy, straight up asked for a bribe for the judge. Magistrate Keiser was a wildly corrupt judge and would dismiss the charges against Lenny – for 10,000$. Lenny refused, even when the offer was reduced down to a mere 3500$. It was the principle of the thing, and Lenny would happily die on this hill.

    At the preliminary hearing, Lenny proved that he had scripts for all his drugs, but the judge ordered the matter to proceed to trial. Outside, Lenny outright accused the judge of corruption to the assembled press core.

    He flew back to California that week to play his old haunt, San Francisco. This audio is from October 4, 1961, just 5 days after his arrest in Philly.

    Jazz Workshop Audio here

    At the conclusion of the performance you just heard, Lenny was arrested for violating California Penal Code 311.6 – A charge of presenting an obscene perfomance. The police took objection to many parts of his act, but in particular, use of the word ‘cocksucker’. He was booked and released in time for his 1:00 am performance at the same venue.

    “I should keep my raincoat on – I may have to go out again!” he quipped on stage, before spending the next hour ranting about the arrest, pointing how ridiculous it was that there was nothing wrong with the police using the word in their squad cars to insult and denigrate anyone they felt like, and that people of both sexes, many of whom were in the audience, happily had oral sex all time, and that was all fine and legal as well, but talking about it on stage – THAT was somehow the criminal offence. At the end of the gig, Lenny realised he’d put on a lecture, and not a comedy show. He turned to the audience and said.

    “I wasn’t very funny tonight. Sometimes I’m not. I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.”

    The United States has always had laws against Obscenity. It still does. The purpose of these laws is to restrict sexually explicit material. In 1957, the Us Supreme Court ruled that an obscene work could be defined as any work where “the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest”. In english, this meant that the work in question had to be intended to get you off for the creator to be charged with obscenity.

    Bruce’s stand up clearly wasn’t intended to be arousing. His bits about sex were about making fun of sex, about making fun of social mores related to sex. As one judge would later put it, ‘if Mr.Bruce’s act aroused you on Saturday, might I suggest you talk to someone on Sunday.’

    But the charges laid against Lenny were never about dirty words, or sex, or stand up. They were a conservative backlash against the cultural change in America that Lenny Bruce represented. Here was a man that had entered mainstream cultural discourse that openly discussed GLBT people, was an open drug user, and, crucially, enjoyed attacking religion. Particularly, the Catholic church.

    In the 1952 case Burstyn Inc V Wilson, the Supreme Court had found “It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches or motion pictures.”

    They had made it clear that the protections for religious criticism in the United States were absolute. Nor was there a law against talking about sex, or about discussing GLBT people. But law enforcement, which is a field dominated by social conservatives, were more than happy to use obscenity laws to protect their cultural beliefs.

    Lenny’s lawyer prepared to defend Lenny on the basis of the 1957 Supreme court decision. At a trial presided over only by the magistrate, the judge decreed that he wasn’t really interested in whether or not Lenny’s work fell under the definition Obscenity according to prurient interest. He openly declared that he simply didn’t care about Supreme Court precedent. “I don’t need any points and authorities to tell me that this language that was used is obscene. Now if the Supreme Court takes a different view, that is up to them! But to me, it is obscene and I certainly wouldn’t let m grandchildren sit in and listen to a show like that.”

    The judge did grant Lenny a continuance to transcribe tape recordings from the Jazz Workshop so they could be entered into evidence.

    Lenny wasn’t happy with his lawyers performance, and subsequently replaced him with Albert Bendich, a famed civil rights lawyer that had defended the poet Allen Ginsburg when he was charged with obscenity over his poem ‘Howl’.

    Bendich applied for a jury trial and was granted it. In turn, the original Judge was replaced by Judge Clayton Horn. This essentially hit the reset button for the case.

    In spite of Bendich’s success, Lenny wasn’t happy. Though he initially agreed to Bendich’s plan for the new trial, he was secretly calling around, trying to get an even higher profile lawyer. Bendich threatened to quit when he found out. Lenny relented, letting Bendich run the case. But it didn’t stop Lenny from trying to interfere in other ways. On the first day of the trial, Judge Horn was handed a letter by the Bailiff.

    “Dear Judge Horn,

    The monstrous rumour Judge Horn feels the defendant takes the matter lightly motivates this letter. Odious is the matter, my arrest for obscenity has enfilmed my career with a leprous stigma that St.Francis could not kiss away at the ethereal peak. Objectivity is impossible for me. I have searched the matter out morally – ‘Let year cast the first stone’ – is the answer I keep hearing. Lest this matter be misinterpreted, its intent, not to placate, but to clarify a proconceived concept of my attitude. This inference you would pre-judge is the fear of the courts as a result of Axelrod palace. His statement ‘I don’t understand a thing on this tape but as far as I am concerned, he’s guilty’ – without hearing one witness.


    Lenny Bruce.

    Trying to influence the court in this manner is considered something of a no no, and Lenny was found guilty of contempt on the spot. Bendich had no idea he had sent the letter, and was left begging the judge for a bit of leniency.

    After that initial hiccup, the trial went well, aside from Lenny whispering ‘advice’ in Bendichs ear from everything to objections through to jury selection.

    The arresting officers testified once again, as Bendich pressed the question of what was so offensive about the term, ‘cocksucker’. Two main points came up. First, was their admission that this was a word that they and the rest of the police force used all the time, and second was this exchange:

    “I had a conversation with Mr. Bruce as we led – took him from the Jazz Workshop to the patrol wagon. I spoke to Mr.Bruce and said “Why do you feel you have the right to use the word ‘cocksuckers’ to entertain people in a public spot. Mr.Bruce’s reply to me was, ‘Well, there’s a lotta cocksuckers around here aren’t there? What’s wrong with talking about them?”

    Bendich called a number of intellectuals to the stand, who all testified that Lenny’s work was social satire, and his use of dirty words was a discussion about the taboos surrounding dirty words, and they weren’t just to titillate or disgust.

    When journalist Ralph Gleason was asked whether Lenny’s performance that night had any social significance, he stated (paraphrasing):

    “All of Mr.Bruce’s performances do. The word ‘cocksucker’, was employed in a discussion about the way in which one aspect of our society functions and some of the hypocrisy inherent in the fact that you can discuss these things in one sense, and in another, you aren’t supposed to.”

    Finally, the point was hammered home that no one in the audience had registered a complaint – it was only the police that were offended.

    Lenny though, was not willing to sit still. He got in a heated argument with Bendich about taking the stand. It got to the point where Lenny was willing to fire him if it didn’t happen. Bendich, to keep the peace, relented.

    In his 15 minutes on the stand, Lenny didn’t do anything to torpedo the trial. He made a few jokes, looked a bit uncomfortable, and added little to the discussion. The lead prosecutor was sure he was high, noting is pallid skin colour and fresh track marks on his wrist.

    Initially, the jury lent in favor of conviction, but two jurors held out, and Judge Horn reiterated his point that Lenny’s performance had to be both arousing and without any social merit. By this strict definition, the jury had no choice but to acquit Lenny on all charges. But they weren’t happy about it.

    “Under the letter of the law, we had no choice. We hate this verdict.” – Find the better quote from the SLV book.

    Lenny’s bizarre behavior at trial was motivated by a range of things. First, he saw the trials as amazing publicity, and wanted a chance to showboat in a courtroom. Secondly, he thought himself as one of the smartest guys in the room and wanted a chance to prove it. Third, were the drugs. Lenny was displaying early stages of meth induced psychosis, in addition to a litany of other health problems. Far from the trim and polished figure of five years earlier, Lenny was beginning to look saggy, bloated and jaundiced. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, is that the legal system became a proxy for his issues with his dad. Here was an all powerful paternalistic system telling him what he wasn’t allowed to do, and the little boy inside of Lenny couldn’t help but scream ‘Fuck you dad, I won’t do what you tell me.”

    Outside the courts, things weren’t looking to good either. Between the threat of legal problems, and that Lenny was just an all round pain in the arse to work with, many clubs were closing their doors to him. He was still able to book regular, well paid gigs, but not at the sort of heady 3-4000 a week of a few years earlier. This was a major problem because he was still spending like crazy. Between the 600+ he was spending on drugs every week, the repayments on the house, his habit of just giving away cars to friends, the legal bills, and the family that he was supporting, cash was becoming a week to week proposition.

    In July, he played Isy’s Supper Club in Vancouver. The first two shows sold out easily, but by the third show, Vancouvers club licensing inspector and two morality squad detectives threatened to cancel the clubs license if Lenny’s remaining engagements weren’t cancelled (yes, Canada had literal Morality Police). The Inquisition Coffee house offered to pick up the remaining shows, but they too were threatened. In response, Lenny went on the nightly news to promise that he would never play Vancouver again.

    He played a run of shows at the Establishment Club in London. The first show went great, but the second and subsequent shows were disasters. There were walk outs, heckling, and thrown glasses. He played for two full weeks, under relentless attack by the British press, who had little better to do than attack a visiting comedian playing at a medium sized private cabaret club.

    He got a book deal with Playboy to release his largley ficitiious autobiography, “how to talk dirty and influence people”. Then he sued his record label, who were about to release his 4th comedy album, over unpaid royalties, and ditched his long time manager Jack Sobel, ostensibly in an effort to save money, but really because he was being overtaken by drug induced paranoia (although I guess one could argue it wasn’t really paranoia in Lenny’s case, because people really were out to get him).

    Nevertheless, he kept getting gigs. His notoriety was enough of a draw that many clubs still saw him as a risk worth taking, albeit at a reduced rate. He did Atlantic City, Miami, and LA, all his usual haunts. He even took a gig in Sydney. The stories from that trip really show how bad things were getting. He was issuing insane commands to his entourage, including an order to murder any building inspectors that came up to his house. An hour before the flight, Lenny filled nearly a full teaspoon up with Heroin and got ready to shoot. One of his friends, a guy named Chic, poured most of it back into the bag when Lenny wasn’t looking. When Lenny injected (which by now was a difficult task because most of his veins had collapsed), the drugs hit him like a bus. It was so strong he wound up puking in the toilet for the next 20 minutes. Lenny was now going to miss his flight, so Chic called the airport and had them delay the plane (remember this is an international flight), so Lenny could get his act together. He spent the first half of the flight throwing up in the toilet.

    Chic later realized that Lenny would have definitely OD’d if not for his intervention.

    The Sydney trip went much the way of the London one, except the crowds were smaller and less cultured. The promoter was in financial trouble and was willing to take a risk on Lenny, but the big payday was a failure, effectively ending the career of the promoter. He played a couple of shows that bombed, was hounded by the press, was barred from appearing on the national broadcaster, and wound it all up with a couple of small shows at the University of Sydney.

    On return to LA, things had gotten worse again. That building inspector that Lenny had wanted murdered, hadn’t been killed, and instead had inspected Lenny’s house and ordered all the renovations torn down. He had to fork out a small fortune to get the architect to bring everything up to code. His record company, Fantasy records, now really was stalling his royalties in response to the previous years lawsuit. The IRS was auditing him, and to ice the cake, he was laid up for three more days in hospital with yet another round of blood poisoning.

    Once released, Lenny went out and did what was most important to him – score. He went down to south central LA where a friend of his ran a slot car racer shop, but it was really just a front for heroin sales. You buy a racecar, and inside is a baggy of horse. On this particular day, October 3rd, 1962, the Hobby Shop was being watched by 4 narcotics detectives, including sergeant Joe Lesnick, who had busted Lenny before. They spotted Lenny leaving via the back entrance, and busted him. He had several vials of methedrine on his person, and had been spotted throwing away a matchbook filled with Heroin during the brief chase that had ensued.

    The arraignment was a circus. The press went nuts taking photos, and Lenny wore a piece of paper with ‘Fuck You’ written on it so they couldn’t print the pictures. He was charged with possession, and released on 2500$ bail. Rather than exit through the press scrum, Lenny charged out the back door, and evaded all but one of the cameraman. Lenny floored him with a left hook. A week later, he would be back there for his preliminary trial hearing on the narcotics charge, and to plead not guilty to assaulting the cameraman.

    His next run of shows were iin LA, which kept him from breaching bail. The Troubadour IS a neat little rock venue on Santa Monica Boulevard. It’s one of the few venues I’ve mentioned that’s still there today. The night of Lenny’s first performance, the club hung a portentous sign out the front.

    “The troubadour neither condones nor condemns Mr.Bruces statements since it is our policy not to interfere or limit in any way an artists performance on stage”

    Insert Troubadour audio here

    This audio is from October the 23rd. For this performance, 3 plainsclothes officers arrested Lenny on violation of penal code 311.6, the same charge he’d beaten in San Francisco. He was taken down to the West Hollywood police station for the 3rd time in as many days.

    That audio is from the following night, on the 24th, when, you guessed it, he was arrested AGAIN by vice squad detectives. He paid his bond himself this time, and told the press he couldn’t afford a lawyer this time. He was near to broke.

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